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Mark 1:2 and New Testament Textual Criticism

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In the second verse of Mark’s Gospel, most modern translations read something like “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I am sending my messenger before your face, who shall prepare your way.” The KJV on the other hand has “As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee." The key difference (once you get past the thees and thous) is the source of the quotation. Modern translations present this as coming from Isaiah, while the KJV presents the quotation as coming from “the prophets.” The problem is that the quotation is initially from Malachi (3:1). Mark 1:3 then goes on to quote from Isaiah. Why, then, have the modern translations rendered the quotation as coming only from Isaiah?

The reason, quite simply, is that the earliest and best witnesses have such wording. New Testament scholars who work on determining the wording of the original Greek New Testament are functioning at the level of the deepest integrity when they argue that the original read “in Isaiah the prophet.” This is because they are arguing for wording that seems to communicate a mistake. They argue this in spite of their own feelings about the biblical author’s accuracy.1 Their basis for this view is that a number of important and early manuscripts have the reading “in Isaiah the prophet” rather than “in the prophets.” The witnesses that have “in the prophets” are A, E, F, G, H, P, W, Σ, family 13, the majority of minuscules, the bulk of lectionaries, one Vulgate MS, Syriac Harclean (6th century Byzantine version), a few scattered Bohairic MSS, Ethiopic, Slavic, Ireneaus (Latin translation), and Asterius. Except for Ireneaus (second century), the earliest evidence for this is thus from the late fourth century (W and Asterius). The difficulty of Ireneaus is that he wrote in Greek but has been preserved largely in Latin. His Greek remains have “in Isaiah the prophet.” Only the later Latin translation has “in the prophets.” The KJV reading is thus in harmony with the majority of late manuscripts (MSS).

On the other hand, the witnesses for “in Isaiah the prophet” (either with the article before Isaiah or not) are early and geographically widespread: Aleph, B, L, Δ, Θ, family 1, 33, 205, 565, 700, 892, 1071, 1241, 1243, 2427, Itala MSS (such as a, aur, b, c, d, f , ff2, l, q, Vulgate, Syriac Peshitta, Syriac Palestinian, Coptic, Georgian, Armenian, Irenaeus (Greek), Origen, Serapion, Epiphanius, Severian, Cyril-Jerusalem, Hesychius, Victorinus-Pettau, Chromatius, Ambrosiaster, Jerome (who has a variant of this reading, but NOT “in the prophets”), Augustine, etc. This evidence runs deep into the second century, is widespread, and is found in the most important Alexandrian, Western, and Caesarean witnesses.

On the whole, we would have to say that the “Isaiah” reading has a better external pedigree in every way. It has the support of the earliest and best witnesses from all the texttypes that matter. It is widespread throughout the Mediterranean world, and from a very early period.

Hence, this leaves us with an interesting question: If this reading is not original, where did it come from? Scribes surely knew that the first part of the quotation was from Malachi--after all, not a few of these same scribes had copied out the OT. They knew their Scriptures well. Hence, an accidental change to “Isaiah” by some well-meaning early scribe is rather unlikely.2

Further, there is virtually no possibility that a scribe could have accidentally written Isaiah by dittography. This is the beginning of the gospel; there is not only no Isaiah (Ησαια) in the preceding material, there is also no Ησ in the preceding material except in Jesus’ name, but that would have been written as a nomen sacrum (ΙΥ) from early on.

This leaves one possibility left: conspiracy. Indeed, this is the charge that John Burgon makes of these early MSS. But if there is such a conspiracy, then three problems remain that are difficult, if not impossible, to explain: (1) How in the world could such a conspiracy have infected so many early and diverse witnesses? Its roots must go back so early that we would have to doubt virtually any reading in the NT. This would mean that the very first copies--and therefore often the majority of MSS (according to majority text theory) got corrupted. Thus, the conspiracy theory proves too much. That’s even too much for Burgon! (2) If there was a conspiracy, then these conspirators were singularly inept, for they blew most of their chances to corrupt the NT. Further, it is demonstrable that virtually every MS (and certainly the major ‘conspirators’ such as Aleph, B, and D) harmonizes Gospel passages from time to time, even against the majority of MSS. Such harmonizations are cross-purposed with conspiracy and intentional corruption. (3) In order for there to be a conspiracy, there must of course be some sort of collusion. If so, why then do these early MSS disagree so much? That is, they are not nearly as uniform as the later Byzantine MSS. One simply cannot have his cake and eat it, too: if you hold to conspiracy, you must also affirm some measure of uniformity. The majority text advocates strongly speak against the disunity of the early MSS, while at the same time arguing just as strongly they they (at least the Alexandrian MSS) come from a singular recension. But if that is the case, why then the fracturing? You can’t have it both ways.

If “in Isaiah the prophet” is neither an accident nor an intentional change, do we dare call it original? All the evidence points in that direction. This leaves two questions: How do we then explain “in the prophets”? And what impact does this make on inerrancy? The explanation is that “in the prophets” is obviously a secondary reading, motivated by perhaps several pious scribes who thought “Isaiah” was a contradiction. Hence, they changed it to “the prophets.” This smells very much like a predictable variant that could have occurred in several regions without any kind of collusion or genetic connection. At the same time, if Ireneaus’s Latin translation is informed by later witnesses, then it is possible that this reading originated as a Byzantine reading. It is noteworthy that Asterius reads “in the prophets.” He was Lucian’s student and was the first church father to use the Byzantine text form, as far as we can tell. (Lucian was proposed by Hort as the father of the Byzantine text. This proposal, incidentally, was by no means necessary to Hort’s theory, but was a decent hunch that may well be correct.) Thus, “in the prophets” either arose in more than one region by pious scribes or was initiated by the Byzantine archetype which, in turn, infected the majority of subsequent Greek witnesses. Either way, the reading is easily explained as a “correction” to Mark’s wording.

Now, how does all this relate to the issue of inerrancy? Three answers need to be given. First, the evidence is overwhelming that Mark wrote “in Isaiah the prophet.” Whatever one’s beliefs about inerrancy, it seems to me, they have to adjust to this piece of evidence.

Second, when it comes to dealing with textual criticism, if we want to take an approach to the text that says, “Start with the presupposition of inerrancy,” then we should logically be forced into holding to conjectural emendation in some places (such as Luke 2:2). This is so because there are several more severe problems to inerrancy than Mark 1:2. But if that is our approach, shouldn’t we also emend the text any time it disagrees with our theology on other fronts? There are passages that seem to indicate that Jesus was less than true deity. Don’t we have the right to change them to fit our doctrinal convictions? There is no stopping this kind of dogmatic method once it has begun. In the end, all one believes is what he wants to believe. And his Bible is of the same kind as Thomas Jefferson’s (who cut out passages that offended him, principally texts that affirmed that miraculous). This is not honoring to the God of the Bible who works in history. Theology must never be divorced from history; when it is, Christianity is no better than any other religion.

Third, we simply need to be honest with the evidence in front of us. It is acceptable to say, at times, “I don’t know.” Inerrancy does not live or die with Mark 1:2. There are many fine exegetes who adopt the “Isaiah” reading and yet affirm inerrancy (in fact, I would venture to say that most inerrantist scholars adopt this reading). Nevertheless, they have options as to what is going on. They may not have the answer, but to simply call “in Isaiah” a mistake is quite arrogant. Some suggest that Isaiah headed up the scroll of the prophets and hence Mark meant “In the scroll of Isaiah.” This may be, but we are lacking sufficient proof. There are other suggestions as well, though no firm answers. Like any other doctrine, we base our belief on what we think Scripture teaches and place the difficult passages in the ambiguous category. This is because the doctrine is based on clear passages that seem to be overwhelming to us. There are times that we simply say, “I don’t know what this means, but I know what it doesn’t mean.” Why should Mark 1:2 be any different? At the same time, the closer we look at the Scriptures, the more we are delighted by the subtleties of truth woven into them. We should never be afraid to look more closely at Mark 1:2--or at any other difficult passage. But we should be afraid of our own arrogance--an arrogance often borne of fear and ignorance, not evidence.


1 By saying this, we are not arguing that the majority of textual critics embrace inerrancy. However, the vast majority do have sufficient respect for a biblical author that they will not impute to him an ostensible inaccuracy unless the manuscript testimony compels them to do so. At all points, textual critics are historians who have to base their views on data, not mere theological convictions. The rule that almost all textual critics follow is: Choose the reading that best explains the rise of the others. This means looking at the external and internal evidence in an effort to trace out both history and psychology.

Further, conjectural emendation is generally anathema to textual critics, even though they sometimes resort to it to solve difficulties in the text. In the least, this shows that textual critics as a group are in no way trying to destroy the Bible’s credibility.

2 To be sure, there is some evidence that an occasional later scribe made this error. But to argue that an early scribe did so and that his error infected many MSS for generations in several widespread regions is beyond credibility.

Related Topics: Textual Criticism